One of Ireland’s great engineering feats in the 19th century was the building of the Galway - Clifden railway. After 30 years of argument as to which was the best route, the first train steamed out of Galway to Oughterard on January 1 1895; and the final section to Clifden was finished by July of that year.
In view of the present contention to where a new bridge, to be part of the proposed city by-pass, should cross the river, one suggestion at that time was at Jordan’s island, just upstream of the present Quincentenary bridge; while the other site was near Menlo, almost on the same place as the present proposal.
In the event an impressive steel and iron-girded bridge was constructed just above the Salmon weir, with a drawbridge in its middle to allow tall ships to pass.* The line was just over 48 miles long and had cost £9,000 per mile to build. It was, according, to Paul Duffy, a former engineer with Galway County Council, writing in the Connacht Tribune, a major engineering triumph. It included precise rock cuttings, embankments across soft bog, 28 bridges, seven stations and a harbour at Woodquay.
The line, however, ran through the least populated area of Connemara. Despite bringing a modest stream of wealth to the Cleggan and Ballinahinch fisheries, and a boost to the tourist trade, it never really paid its way. After the amalgamation of railways in the Free State, rigid economy was practiced. The days of the Clifden line were numbered. In 1935 the decision to close the line was taken despite strong local opposition.
‘I remember my father went up to Dublin to the Eucharistic Congress , that was 1932, from here Oughterard on the train for 8 shillings and 6 pence for a ticket…Oh it was a lot of money back then for a ticket. A lot of money back then.’ (Paddy Geoghegan )
The photographic artist Lorraine Tuck grew up in Oughterard, where the train was part of her family folklore. Her grandparents Barbara and Peter O’Malley, and her mother Teresa, told her stories of the railway and how its coming and going through the village was always a talking point.
‘All the people in Oughterard, I remember they used to come up to watch the train, the half-seven going to Clifden, to see if there was anybody on it that they’d know and all that…’(Paddy Geoghegan ).
“ I remember even as a young girl,” said Loraine last week, at the launch of her book The Whistle Blowing, “ that I made a promise to myself that one day I would tell the story of the railway to a much larger audience.” She has chosen the medium of photography to tell that story, and out of an approximate 600 photographs, she has selected 40.
Now, of course, as she walked along what is left of the line, in all seasons, nature has taken over. The line is still discernable. Sometimes it is a ghostly presence through trees and over bog, other times, we see a deserted railway cottage, or a bridge with trees growing out of it. Other times, as Paul Duffy wrote, you can see the precise cutting through rock, just allowing space for the train to pass through. If you stuck your head out of the window in these narrow gorges, you would leave it behind on a rock!
But I am sure that once in the open countryside, many passengers leaned out with pleasure to smell the air, and to see some of the spectacular scenery as they moved leisurely on. I say leisurely because on August 19 1906 a young Galwayman Frank Bailey announced his attention to race the train back from Clifden to Galway on his bike. It was a gigantic struggle. Frank gained some time as the train stopped at stations, but once on a clear track, the cyclist and the train were more or less neck to neck. As he approached Galway he was delighted to see that people had come out of the town to cheer him on….(Quote Connacht Sentinel ) ‘ He catapulted himself down the hill through Newcastle, past the University, over the Salmon Weir bridge, and as he did so he could see the train just reaching the long metal bridge across the river….down Eglinton Street, around Eyre Square, and braked hard at the station a bare 30 seconds before the train pulled in a stopped!’ He was carried shoulder high around Eyre Square.
‘I remember it so well the last train that was in 1935 sure, going down there in the evening and the whistle blowing all the way from Clifden. To hear it…to hear it blowing…it was very lonely and we knew it was going to be the last train.’( Paddy Geoghegan )
Of course closing the line was a big mistake. World War II broke out four years later and Ireland entered the ‘Emergency’ with its rationing of its scarce fuel resources. Turf had to replace coal. Connemara turf became extremely expensive to harvest and to export to the rest of the country in petrol fuelled lorries. Petrol was heavily rationed. Paul Duffy tells us that many Connemara merchants reverted to the pre-railway supply route: the sea. ‘The continued existence of the railway would have gone a long way in the 1950s and 1960s to improve transport facilities in the area, it would have reduced the demands on the area’s road system, and much of the heavy traffic that still affects Connemara could be transferred to the railway, thus prolonging the life of the road system.’
There is one consolation, however, and that is Lorraine’s beautiful photographs. With just a few quotes from the late Paddy Geoghegan from Canrawer, Lorraine brings us along the forgotten line, which has not been taken over by nature, but enhanced by it. The story of the Galway-Clifden still goes on.**
NOTES: * The bridge was closed in 1935 following the end of the railway. It was offered for sale for £10. As there were no takers it was bought for scrap by Hammond Lane Foundry, Dublin. When taken down the metal was found to be in perfect condition. Its broad pillars are still in place today. Hopefully the proposed pedestrian walk will come into fruition soon. But, as they stand in the water, it is a further memory of this once fine engineering project.
** The Whistle Blowing, by Lorraine Tuck, on sale €35.